Thursday, 29 March 2018
I think it fair to describe mythologies as belief systems. They are flexible and subject to change both over time and between communities and even individuals, but they contain within themselves a whole world view, coherent and complete in itself.
But are different mythologies incompatible with each other? The answer, surprisingly, is no. One mythology can simply swallow another whole, as happened when the Assyrians conquered Babylon, and all the mythology of Marduk, chief god of Babylon, was re-assigned to the Assyrian god Assur.
Or mythologies can blend and intertwine, as happened when the Romans incorporated Greek mythology into their pre-existing religious and cultural thinking. They can crash and fuse, as with the Greeks and the Minoans.
I have two books by the American ethnologist Franz Boas, Kathlamet Texts and Chinook Texts. The interesting thing about these books is that the informant for both was the same person, Charles Cultee. He had carried these mythologies in separate compartments of his mind, and was able to transmit them untarnished; when Boas did his research, Cultee was one of only 3 speakers of Kathlamet, and in everyday life spoke his wife’s language, Chehalis.
Another Native American example is even more striking. John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks of 1932 introduced Hehaka Sapa or Black Elk as the leading authority on Sioux spirituality, a position sealed by the publication of Joseph Epes Brown’s The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. There is no reason to doubt Black Elk’s knowledge or authority on the matters of which he speaks in these two outstanding books. But it is also true that while fully believing and respecting the Lakota teachings which he transmitted, and keeping faith with the vision he was granted of the “living light” of the Ghost Dance, in December 1904 Black Elk was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and devoted many years to instructing fellow Lakotas in Catholic doctine. He was able to hold both belief systems in his head without conflict, even with some crossover and integration, as in his assimilation of the Two Roads picture catechism to his own Ghost Dance vision.
I’m reminded of Helgi the Skinny, a Viking who in the changeover period between Norse and Christian belief, “believed in Christ, but prayed to Thor on sea journeys and in touch stituations.” Silversmiths at the time made amulets that could be regarded as Thor’s hammer or Christ’s cross, as the believer wished.